Civilian operators clamor for night-vision goggles

 - December 28, 2007, 5:46 AM

The civil night-vision goggle market is booming for emergency medical service (EMS) and law enforcement applications, but significant regulatory barriers could limit new entrants into the market and restrict the export of the most popular NVGs.

While the military remains the most prolific consumer of NVGs–accounting for an estimated 90 percent of all NVG sales–the civil market has posted significant growth over the last five years. Mike Atwood, president of Aviation Specialties Unlimited (ASU) of Boise, Idaho, sees the civil market growing for his company at 10 percent per year. ASU is the exclusive U.S. distributor of the popular ITT 4949 ANVIS-9 NVGs. ASU provides NVG-compatible cockpit STCs and was the first company to train civil EMS pilots.

An NVG cockpit STC generally involves altering the instrument and cabin lighting so that green does not exceed 535 nonometers, as opposed to the standard red/yellow via new lighting and instrument display filters.

In response to increased demand for NVGs, helicopter OEMs such as Bell and Eurocopter are manufacturing NVG-compatible cockpits on popular models and offering NVG courses to qualified pilots. Eurocopter offers NVG-compatible cockpits on its EC 135 and EC 145 light twins and via STC on its AS 350 series.

American Eurocopter offers a five-day initial training course on NVG operations for $11,500 that attracted 40 pilots in 2006. The number of attendees could increase if Eurocopter assumes NVG training for U.S. Army National Guard pilots flying UH-72A Lakotas, the military variant of the EC 145.

Proper NVG initial and recurrent training is essential for safe operations. “Initial, recurrent and standardized training is critical,” said Atwood. “Just because people flew [with NVGs] in the military doesn’t qualify them for civil operations. The operational profile is totally different. In the military you are trained to fly no-light, nap-of-the-earth missions. On the civil side you often fly in high-traffic environments and you need to be able to use lighting systems to operate everything properly within the aircraft.”

NVGs are especially crucial for law enforcement operations. “I don’t know how they can effectively run their mission without goggles,” said Atwood.
Del Livingston, vice president of flight operations and training for American Eurocopter, estimates that 75 percent of the company’s law enforcement customers are flying with NVG systems on board. The U.S. Department of Customs and Border Protection operates the largest fleet (43, with more on order) of NVG-equipped AS 350s (B2 and B3 models).

Atwood also sees an increasing number of EMS operators going to NVGs and estimates that that market is growing at 15 percent per year. “More and more of those operators are going to night vision,” he said, estimating that there are currently 800 EMS helicopters in domestic service.

Customized NVG Cockpits
Jeff Stubbs, senior vice president of operations/systems development of REB Technologies in Bedford, Texas, said demand for the company’s civil helicopter cockpit NVG STCs is “doubling” about every year and that REB plans to install approximately 100 systems this year, with 70 percent going to military customers and the remainder to the civilian market. REB has installed systems in various Bells and Eurocopters. Stubbs said the typical installation in a Bell 206 takes about two days and costs $23,000 plus labor.

However, Eurocopter’s Livingston cautions that NVG cockpit STCs are rarely repeatable. “So many of the aircraft we sell are so personalized that just [changing one thing in the instrument panel] might require you to redo the STC,” he said, pointing out that the caveat includes avionics upgrades. He added that NVG STCs are typically done as part of a larger avionics package and that the general time frame to complete installation is “three to five days,” but “that can vary.”

NVG technology is becoming more refined. While Atwood acknowledges that monochromatic 2-D NVGs “have limitations like anything else,” he doesn’t see a large move to incorporate them into enhanced-vision systems (EVS) because of the weight and cost of the associated sensors that would have to be added to the helicopter.

Companies such as Max-Viz have developed systems that mate aircraft-mounted infrared sensors to provide real-time black-and-white images of terrain in reduced visibility. The Max-Viz EVS-1000 can be used with or without NVGs and costs about the same, according to the company. The Max-Viz EVS-1000 has been installed on the Agusta A109A; Bell 212 and 214; Eurocopter EC 135, 145 and AS 355; and Sikorsky S-76. STCs are pending on other helicopters.

Atwood said the cost of retrofitting an STC’d NVG instrument panel is between $25,000 and $35,000, and goggles cost an additional $10,000 per set. He noted that most operators order at least two sets per aircraft. Goggles usually need to undergo a factory inspection every 180 days at a cost of $350 per year, and ASU and other companies typically provide loaners.

Atwood believes NVG advances will trickle down to civilian operators as military models are improved. “The goggles that are going out in the civilian market are the same ones being delivered to the military, and I don’t see that changing.” However, he does note recent improvements in technologies such as polymer filters for flight instruments and gated power supplies that improve resolution in highly lit or darker areas.

Currently, the FAA has approved (via safety advisory letter) only two types of NVG for civilian use and the manufacturers of those goggles (Litton and ITT) have stated that they will not pursue FAA Technical Standard Order (TSO) approval. However, other manufacturers of aviation NVGs might need to. Cost of pursuing a TSO and the relatively small market (fewer than 200 civil systems per year) are viewed as significant obstacles to increased competition, as are certain international trade barriers.

Recently the European Union banned the use of NVGs containing trace amounts of lead. The restriction was seen as favoring UK-built Fenn NVGs while excluding the ITT goggles, which contain a trace amount of lead in some soldered connections.